Q: We are having no success getting our 3-year-old (her third birthday is in a couple of weeks) to do what we tell her to do.
She defies us at every opportunity, whether it’s just ignoring us or telling us “no” or even physically fighting us. We’ve tried time-out, but she won’t sit, and if one of us tries to hold her in her “happy chair,” she screams and kicks and arches her back and we’re afraid we’ll hurt her if we don’t let her go.
We’ve tried taking away privileges, but there really aren’t that many to take away and she doesn’t seem to care anyway. Are there consequences we haven’t thought of that might turn her around?
A: There are probably consequences you haven’t thought of, but I’m sorry to inform you that consequences are not the key to the effective discipline of a child. Rewards and punishments work very reliably and predictably with dogs and other animals. They do not work such with human beings. When it comes to the discipline of children, behavior modification has been a complete bust (along with every other psychological parenting theory).
The key to effective discipline is a proper parental attitude. Breaking it down, it’s one-third proper body language (as opposed to what the parent-babblers advise, stand up straight and tall when addressing a child), one-third proper speech (when giving instructions, use the fewest words possible and preface them with authoritative phrases such as “It’s now time for you to….” and “You need to….”), and one-third refusing to engage in non-productive back-and-forth (arguments).
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To be more specific with regards to the latter, do not explain your reason for giving a child an instruction. The lack of explanation provokes the universal invitation to battle: “Why?” There is one proper response to that invitation: “Because I said so.” That very time-honored phrase is nothing more than an affirmation of the legitimacy of the parent’s authority. After delivering that affirmation, walk away. Do not hover over a child, waiting for her to begin complying. That is sure to draw resistance. If one is in a situation where walking away is impossible, then turn away and pay attention to something else.
My finding is that the proper parental attitude described above, which identifies the parent as the Alpha in the relationship, minimizes discipline problems. They quickly become small potatoes. Consequences may sometimes be necessary, but two facts are pertinent to this discussion:
1. Without an authoritative attitude on the part of the parent in question, no consequence will work for long.
2. With that authoritative attitude, consequences are rarely necessary.
In the life of nearly every child who is a major behavior problem in the home there is at least one adult who has no problems with the child at all. That is proof that the problem is not located “inside” the child in the form of biochemical imbalances and other equally spurious fictions. It also proves that the child is not the problem.
So, to parents like yourselves, I advise: find that person and watch him or her. You’ll save yourself a lot of money that you might eventually spend on therapy.
Family psychologist John Rosemond can be reached at www.johnrosemond.com.